Solar Eruption Seen in Unprecedented Detail

May 27, 2008

On April 9, the Sun erupted and blasted a bubble of hot, ionized gas into the solar system. The eruption was observed in unprecedented detail by a fleet of spacecraft, revealing new features that are predicted by computer models but difficult to see in practice.

The observations are being discussed today in a press briefing at the American Geophysical Union Joint Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Such eruptions, called coronal mass ejections or CMEs, happen periodically and pose a potential threat to astronauts or satellites if aimed at Earth. Astronomers study these explosions in hope of being able to predict them and provide “space weather” forecasts. The April 9 CME occurred on the edge or limb of the Sun as viewed from Earth. As a result, the X-ray brightening (solar flare) usually associated with a CME was hidden from view, allowing sun-watching spacecraft to take longer exposures and uncover fainter structures than usual.

“Observations like this are very rare,” said Smithsonian astronomer Ed DeLuca, (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) who is presenting the findings at today’s press briefing.

Using the Smithsonian-developed X-ray Telescope (XRT) aboard the Hinode sun-watching satellite, astronomers saw a spiral (helical) magnetic structure unwind as it left the Sun during the CME. Such unwinding can release energy as the magnetic field goes from a more twisted to a less twisted configuration, thereby helping to power the eruption.

Hours later, XRT revealed an inflow of material toward a feature that appears as a bright line—actually an object known as a current sheet seen edge-on. A current sheet is a thin, electrified sheet of gas where oppositely directed magnetic field lines annihilate one another in a process known as magnetic reconnection. The extended observations from XRT show that magnetic fields flow in toward the current sheet for many hours after the eruption, progressing first toward the sheet and then down to the sun’s surface.

Computer models of CMEs predict such movements of magnetic field lines, but observing them has proven difficult. The unique positioning of this CME on the sun’s limb allowed astronomers to measure those motions.

They also determined that the temperature of the current sheet is between 5 and 18 million degrees Fahrenheit, which matches previous measurements higher up in the corona by the Ultraviolet Coronagraph Spectrometer on the SOHO spacecraft.

A workshop is planned to study in detail the results from Hinode XRT, and other observations of this event by TRACE, STEREO, RHESSI, SOHO, and Hinode’s other instruments. Together, those observations will provide a more complete picture of the source and evolution of CMEs.

Hinode is a Japanese mission developed and launched by ISAS/JAXA, with NAOJ as domestic partner and NASA and STFC (UK) as international partners. It is operated by these agencies in cooperation with ESA and the NSC (Norway).

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Explore further: NASA mission uncovers a dance of electrons in space

Related Stories

NASA mission uncovers a dance of electrons in space

May 18, 2017

You can't see them, but swarms of electrons are buzzing through the magnetic environment—the magnetosphere—around Earth. The electrons spiral and dive around the planet in a complex dance dictated by the magnetic and ...

Fields and flows fire up cosmic accelerators

May 16, 2017

Every day, with little notice, the Earth is bombarded by energetic particles that shower its inhabitants in an invisible dusting of radiation, observed only by the random detector, or astronomer, or physicist duly noting ...

Supersonic plasma jets discovered

March 27, 2017

Information from ESA's magnetic field Swarm mission has led to the discovery of supersonic plasma jets high up in our atmosphere that can push temperatures up to almost 10 000°C.

Recommended for you

Camera on NASA's Lunar Orbiter survived 2014 meteoroid hit

May 26, 2017

On Oct. 13, 2014 something very strange happened to the camera aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), which normally produces beautifully clear images of the lunar ...

SDO sees partial eclipse in space

May 26, 2017

On May 25, 2017, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, saw a partial solar eclipse in space when it caught the moon passing in front of the sun. The lunar transit lasted almost an hour, between 2:24 and 3:17 p.m. EDT, ...

Jupiter's complex transient auroras

May 25, 2017

Combined observations from three spacecraft show that Jupiter's brightest auroral features recorded to date are powered by both the volcanic moon Io and interaction with the solar wind.

Methanol detected for first time around young star

May 25, 2017

Methanol, a key building block for the complex organic compounds that comprise life, has been detected for the first time in the protoplanetary disk of a young, distant star. This finding could help scientists better understand ...

New Neliota project detects flashes from lunar impacts

May 25, 2017

Using a system developed under an ESA contract, the Greek NELIOTA project has begun to detect flashes of light caused by small pieces of rock striking the moon's surface. NELIOTA is the first system that can determine the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.